Written by: Carl Gottlieb (screenplay) and Peter Benchley (novel)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"And, you know, the thing about a shark... he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at you, doesn't seem to be living until he bites you, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and they rip you to pieces."
When I was about four years old, I saw a film that changed my life as a movie fan forever: Jaws: The Revenge. That's right--the much-maligned sequel considered by many to be one of the worst films of all time actually served as my introduction to the Jaws series. My parents had rented the film and allowed me to watch it, and, however piss-poor that film was, my undiscerning young eyes only focused on one thing: the giant shark that ate people. I was hooked. I ended up seeing the other three films soon after, and Jaws became one of my first favorite movies that I watched a countless number of times. Eventually, my aunt bought me a VHS copy for my fifth birthday that I still own to this day, and an obsession was born.
Amity Island is a quiet community that's never witnessed a violent crime, which might explain why Chief of Police Martin Brody has moved there from New York. However, this sea-side utopia is soon rocked by a series of shark attacks that result in the deaths of a girl and a young boy. This leads Brody to the conclusion that the beaches must be closed until the predator is destroyed; however, the economy-conscious Mayor Vaughn maintains that Amity must remain open for business for summer dollars, an act which unwittingly offers up a smorgasbord to the great white shark lurking in the waters.
There's very little that can be said about Jaws at this point that hasn't already been said in the 34 years since its release. By all accounts, it's an American classic and a masterwork of suspense and thrills that few films can even touch. The film takes the simple "nature runs amok" theme and classes it up to a level that few could have anticipated. In fact, I've always had a bit of trouble classifying Jaws as a horror film; make no mistake, however: this film was and has been responsible for making many generations of viewers become afraid of the water (the film actually had the adverse affect on me--I became fascinated with sharks and the ocean).
So what exactly separates Jaws from the countless other films of its type? The easy answer here is Steven Spielberg, whose masterful direction elevates the film to an exercise in pure style and suspense. Of course, much of Spielberg's direction can be attributed to the fact that the mechanical shark (dubbed "Bruce") often refused to cooperate, which forced Spielberg to shoot around the creature by utilizing first-person camera angles and rarely revealing the shark itself. As such, the film's structure is fairly reminiscent of a slasher film in that the "killer" is largely unseen until the final act. Besides this fact, Spielberg created a film full of iconic moments and shots, and the presence of veteran editor Verna Fields ensured that it moved along at a quick pace (in fact, it was Fields, not Spielberg, that received much of the credit for the film's effectiveness upon release).
Of course, it also helps that Spielberg had Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw to work with, as each was among the finest actors of their generation. Each of these men also crafted three of the most memorable film characters of all time in Chief Brody, Matt Hooper, and Quint, respectively. It's here that Jaws truly separates itself; whereas many films of its ilk are overly concerned with schlock, Jaws crafts characters and moments in which viewers truly become invested. There are actually many stretches in the film with nary a shark, but this is hardly a problem because there's just as much drama on land as there is on water here (thankfully, however, Spielberg and crew opted to remove the subplot involving Hooper's affair with Mrs. Brody that appears in the novel).
I would be remiss if I didn't say a bit about Robert Shaw's Quint. Like the film itself, it's difficult to express something new about this character. As a kid, Quint was always my favorite character in Jaws--a scoundrel of a fisherman who appropriately curses like a sailor, Quint is nonetheless endearing. His two monologues in the film are among the best ever committed to screen, and the one where he recounts the story of the USS Indianapolis is one of the most captivating moments in film history. It should be noted that Shaw likely wrote this monologue himself, as he was a man of many talents who was taken before us far too soon.
There are a myriad of other factors contributing to the effectiveness of the film, the largest of which is John Williams's iconic score, particularly the main theme that's built upon two notes (Spielberg actually thought it was a joke when Williams first presented it). Since the shark wouldn't work, both the first-person angles and the presence of the theme essentially substituted for its presence, and even Spielberg himself said the film owes half of its effectiveness to the theme. Bill Butler's wonderful cinematography should also be noticed, as the film's natural style is a reminder of an era before every film became overly processed and stylish. Besides this, there are a host of beautiful shots in the film, one of which can be found to the left of this paragraph.
As a horror film, there's actually a surprising amount of grue to be found here: limbs are severed, bodies devoured, and there's even a floating corpse. While this certainly isn't the film's focus, this violence is calculated and powerful when it does appear. For the most part, however, the film works on suspense (with a few well-timed jump scares thrown in). The aforementioned first-person shots are effective here because it taps into the fear of the unknown. When you're swimming in the ocean and your legs are dangling underwater, there's no telling what's down there. The last third of the film dispenses with most of the horror elements and actually turns into a bit of an adventure and thriller film, but it's no less effective. In fact, I can't think of many films that have a more satisfying third act and climax as Jaws.
There's no overstating the importance of Jaws in American cinema: it not only launched Spielberg's career, but it also changed the way films were produced, marketed, and distributed. The film marked the arrival of the first "summer blockbuster" and paved the way for high concept films that still populate multiplexes to this day. On a personal level, it launched an obsession with all things sharks: I drew them (and even re-enacted some of the gorier deaths in the film, to the dismay of many adults), I collected shark figures, and even visited shark aquariums as a child. From a film perspective, Jaws was one of the first major horror films I became obsessed with and is probably responsible for desensitizing me to violence on film. Like I said, the film never truly scared me, but it certainly thrilled me and still does to this very day; in fact, I always kick off the summer with a viewing of Jaws--the season wouldn't be complete without it.
There's been two major releases of Jaws from Universal: a 25th Anniversary release and a 30th Anniversary release. The latter is the only way to go, as it's one of, if not the finest horror DVD release I've encountered. The release is packed with extras, including the complete, two hour documentary that was truncated to about an hour on previous releases. There's also many vintage featurettes, deleted scenes, and the Jaws archives, a collection of production stills and storyboards. The only major thing missing from the previous release are the vintage trailers, which is truly a shame. However, the biggest addition to the 30th Anniversary is the restoration of the film's original mono soundtrack. For the 25th Anniversary, Spielberg altered many of the film's sound effects (including the whales singing and the final explosion, which actually muffles Brody's famous line). This remixed track is also available here in both Dolby Digital and DTS tracks, but these are expendable for Jaws fanatics. The 30th Anniversary set initially came with a collectible booklet, but this configuration is now out of print. No matter what, no fan of cinema should be without this landmark film, whether it be a laserdisc copy, a DVD, or that old worn out MCA VHS release my aunt gave me 20 years ago. This one's absolutely Essential!
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